Forced conversions in Pakistan: a dark reality
Every year in Pakistan, hundreds of young Christian and Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam, but our media very rarely highlights their stories. However, many of these stories can be easily found on social and in the international media. The stories of Zeba Masih and Pooja are among the few on the BBC website, but today I wish to share with you the very unfortunate story of the hearing and speech disabled Christian girl, Asma, who is from Sialkot. According to her lawyer, Hafiz Ateeq-ur-Rehman, she was kidnapped a few months ago by her neighbour, Ghulam Hussain, a very influential person. Despite knowing who the abductor of his daughter was, Gulzar Masih knew he was helpless as he did not have the resources to fight for his daughters. Masih had lost hope of seeing his daughter again, but Asma somehow managed to escape. Now her captors are demanding that her father hand her back to them, but she has refused.
To prove the legitimacy of his forced marriage to Asma, Hussain has produced certificates of her conversion to Islam and her marriage to him. And although the papers do not match her name and even surname, Hussain still insists on her being sent back to him. It is a common and a very alarming fact that with money such documents can be easily made and verified in Pakistan. To pressurise the family and gain support from religious leaders, Hussain has resorted to other tactics, and has even brought religion in, claiming that since Asma has converted to Islam she is not allowed on religious grounds to live with her Christian parents anymore.
I am not aware of the existence of such laws in Pakistan or anywhere else in the world that forbid people of two different faiths to live together. And moreover, here it is simply a matter of a father-daughter relationship, which no social order has the right to break up. In this or other cases, evidence that is forged to cover up crimes that could lead to several years’ imprisonment cannot be condoned.
When Gulzar Masih took a stand to save his daughter and went to the local police station, instead of listening to his grievance and helping him, the police officer pressurised him to send his daughter back to her abductor. What a mockery of the law that the person who should be charged and put behind bars for kidnapping and raping a young Christian woman is being supported by the police. It is not just the police but in such cases even the courts often ignore the law, and instead of deciding the case on merit, resort to giving out decisions based on a prevalent opinion, or because of pressure from religious extremists.
I remember the case of two Christian sisters, Saba Younis, aged 13, and her sister, Anila Younis, 10, who were reportedly kidnapped in 2008 from Multan whilst on their way to their uncle’s house. Their abductors claimed that Saba voluntarily entered into marriage, and that both girls had agreed to convert to Islam. As far as I understand, both sisters were minors and their statements for marriage and/or conversion could not be accepted by law. But the district court judge in Muzaffargarh dismissed a petition by the parents to regain custody on the grounds that the two sisters had “converted in a legitimate manner to Islam,” and that the marriage of the elder sister was legitimate. Such legitimacy can be seen only
Now Gulzar Masih who has no hope for justice and in order to save Asma has sent her to an undisclosed location, but I am not sure if she is going to be safe for a long time. Making a mockery of the law and abuse of power is a common practice for influential people, and especially in such cases where religious groups get involved and laws are manipulated.
Unfortunately, the police and courts whose job is to dig into the matter to bring the truth out and dispense justice disregard the victim’s circumstances, and choose to believe documents and statements of the abductors. And instead of giving kidnapped girls’ custody to their parents/families, in a warped dispensation of “justice,” at times, the custody is given to their captors, their kidnappers. In some cases, these girls/women are sent to Dar-ul-Aman (women shelter). Either way, their lives are ruined.
These girls/women who are not converted to Islam in the first place are never allowed to reconvert to Christianity, and re-join their family. Sadly, if any girl reconverts to Christianity, she is accused of apostasy, and while the state does not prohibit any citizen from converting or reconverting to any religion, the reality in our society is altogether different. Despite having knowledge about this practice, the state has never made any tangible efforts to stop it because it is a matter that concerns minorities. And the rights of minorities do not matter.
I have had the chance to speak to some of these girls personally, and according to them, their thumbprints are taken on blank papers, or some sign under duress as they do not have any other option but to comply with what they are asked to do. Mostly, their parents seem helpless too because the police side with the captors, and often pressurise the victims and their families.
One example is Shazia, a married woman, and a mother of four from Pattoki, who escaped her captors and re-joined her family. But she was not as lucky as Asma, as her captor — an influential landlord — implicated her family in a false case, and forced them to return her to him, claiming her first marriage was no longer valid. Such a blatant manipulation of justice can only be seen in Pakistan, and only in the case of minorities. I fail to understand how and under which law Shazia’s first (Christian) marriage became annulled. Mothers like Shazia are not even allowed to see their children. Their misery is endless.
If somebody is able to take such a case to court, there is still no hope for justice. Last year, Boota Masih, father of 24-year-old Sobia from Lahore, took her case to court with the support of an NGO, but it was all in vain. He filed a petition of habeas corpus through his lawyer in the Lahore High Court. The honourable judge ordered the concerned police officer to recover and produce Sobia before the court. Instead, the officer in charge of investigation appeared before the court, and submitted Sobia’s marriage and conversion certificates.
The concerned judge asked the parents to withdraw their petition, and despite the lawyer arguing for permission for Sobia and her father to meet, unfortunately, the court had to dismiss the request, and the case was withdrawn.
If the kidnapper of a girl of a minority faith feels any threat from her family, he starts to issue threats to their lives, and in some cases, the threat continues until the father or brother of the girl is killed. This is what happened to 14-year-old Mehwish from Faisalabad. Her father was killed when he was considered a threat, and made every effort to take his daughter back. Her mother, Najma, a poor and resource-less lady who even knows the abductor, has no hope that one day her daughter will be returned, as she has been told that Mehwish has converted to Islam and she cannot prove that she was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam by her abductor.
Nasar Masih, father of 16-year-old Sonia, has also lost hope of seeing his daughter again.
The growing threat is making lives of minorities increasingly hard. They live with a constant feeling of insecurity, and having little recourse in the face of violence, they are forced to leave the country their ancestors equally struggled for.
Converting to any religion is the fundamental right of every human being, while forcible conversion to any religion is a crime even under Pakistan’s penal code. Since Pakistan’s laws do not prohibit anyone to change their religion it is the responsibility of the state to ensure and guarantee every citizen freedom of religion and belief.
Pakistan is under obligation to bring its law in line with international conventions ratified in relation to women and religious freedom and belief. The Convention on Elimination of All Forms for Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) clearly establishes state obligation to respect, protect and fulfil women’s rights. Under CEDAW, it is the responsibility of the state to take appropriate measures to eliminate laws and practices that directly discriminate against women, and also to create an environment in which women’s rights can be fulfilled and protected.
There are no indicators to prove the success of Pakistan’s endeavours to promote human rights, and prevent the ongoing persecution against minority women; rather, it is on the increase. Such atrocities against minorities’ women are not hidden from anyone as several reports have been published about this abominable issue. Even the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs has declared the forced conversion of minority girls to Islam as un-Islamic, and has asked the government to adopt a comprehensive mechanism for protection of women belonging to minority communities. Chairman of the committee Hafiz Hamdullah said: “Forced conversion of girls to Islam is against the teachings of Islam and also a violation of the law in the country.” He further said that religion is a personal matter of every individual, and no individual can be converted by force.
Last year, Senate’s Functional Committee on Human Rights recommended to criminalise forced religious conversions, and to prevent misuse of the blasphemy law, but the government seems disinterested, and nothing has changed.
Since the police and courts have failed to uphold the law appropriately, the problem will continue to grow, and people of a particular mindset will continue to commit such crimes without any fear. Although according to the Constitution of Pakistan all citizens are equal before the law, but clearly some are considered superior on the basis of religion.
Many Christians believe that the government of Pakistan deliberately tolerates such lawlessness as a way of marginalising the Christian minority. Since there is an urgent need, and minorities have a longstanding demand, now even the Senate committee has once again recommended that instead of blaming media and NGOs for defaming Pakistan, government must bring this matter to parliament, and introduce legislation to stop the ongoing forced conversion of girls and women belonging to minority religions.